String Theory, Duality and Art: how the Higgs boson and Turner Prize collide

Julia Hawkins Share this page

It's a Tuesday afternoon, a week after the CERN press-conference announcing the probable discovery of the Higgs boson. I'm standing in the light-filled atrium of the Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Cambridge, a building created to facilitate and inspire the interaction of ideas, looking at blackboards with a Turner Prize-winning sculptor and a theoretical physicist. While on the face of it this might seem an unlikely pairing, pairings and relationships have been recurrent themes in the work of both artist Grenville Davey and scientist David Berman for the past two decades, and today they're explaining how cutting-edge physics is inspiring art.

M-theory multiple.

M-theory multiple. Image courtesy Isaac Newton Institute.

We're surrounded by works in progress from the collaboration between Berman, whose area of research is string theory, and Davey, just finishing a period as artist in residence at the Isaac Newton Institute. The works, currently untitled, are beautiful – created from metal and wood, curved, shapely, and immensely tactile. A pair of bowl-like wooden objects nestle one against the other on a table, their shape echoed in a coupling of larger metal objects leaning against a wall. Vertical forms in turned oak, like swell-bellied pots surmounted by stacked circles, are grouped on a slate rectangle: one whole pair faces another pair where one of the forms has been halved to expose the interior. (I love these - they are vaguely reminiscent of primitive figurines, and the urge to stroke them is almost irresistible; eventually I ask Davey if I can touch them. He picks one up, I do too, and as I hold it the smell of beeswax rises up from the wood.) On different sides of the room are two triptychs of wood-framed circular medallions, green under glass – Davey's reinterpretation of the Isaac Newton Institute's famed blackboards (actually greenboards), which hang everywhere throughout the building, including in the lift. Everywhere you look there are circular forms, grouped and paired, the repetition and reflection of similar shapes, some whole, some split.

Detail from M-Theory multiple in oak, Grenville Davey.

Detail from M-theory multiple in oak, Grenville Davey. Image courtesy Isaac Newton Institute.

Grenville Davey's artistic residency has run in parallel with a six-month academic programme, organised by David Berman, on Mathematics and applications of branes in string and M-Theory (read more about M-theory here). In addition to his academic research, Berman, Reader in Theoretical Physics at Queen Mary, University of London, has long been interested in how scientific concepts seep into our cultural consciousness, and emerge, transmuted, in literature and art. Relativity and quantum mechanics revolutionised the way we saw the world in the early half of the twentieth century, with the impact of ideas springing from the new scientific theories evident in the work of writers and artists ranging from Virginia Woolf to Mondrian. Contemporary physics has the potential to do the same.

Berman has explored the debatable land between science and art for several years, perhaps most notably in a Cartier Award-winning performance piece at the 2009 Frieze Art Fair with conceptual artist Jordan Wolfson. He cautions against a literal approach to artistic collaboration. "You're not going to look at these objects and understand string theory." What he is interested in is the richness and potential inherent in the new ways of describing and understanding nature that contemporary physics research offers, and how contemporary art can interpret these. String theory involves ideas of hidden dimensions of space, and strangely curved geometries (read more about Calabi-Yau manifolds in the Plus article Hidden Dimensions). For Berman, one of the most remarkable concepts within string theory is that of duality, which he describes as "an ambiguity or relation between very different descriptions of nature", leading on to ideas of symmetry and symmetry breaking. It's these concepts of duality, relationship, symmetry and symmetry-breaking that are most obviously explored in the collaboration with Grenville Davey.

"A consistent element of my work over the past twenty years has been a fascination with pairings of objects," Davey explains. This is evident right back to the pair of large abstract steel sculptures that won him the 1992 Turner Prize, and it was this emphasis on duality that attracted Berman. The collaboration, supported by grants awarded by the Westfield Trust and the Henry Moore Foundation, started when Berman placed an advert inviting applications from artists. The advertisement was, he says, "quite technical" in its specification of what the collaboration would explore, but also non-prescriptive: "I didn't feel I understood what the appropriate medium would be." Out of over 200 applications, Berman drew up a shortlist of ten for interview. "There were a number of different ideas shortlisted – tango was one," he says (by coincidence, CERN currently has a choreographer in residence), but Davey's proposal stood out. "Something about the geometry and physicality of sculpture fitted in with how I think about physics," says Berman.

Several of the works repeat the same basic form.

Several of the works repeat the same basic undulating circular bowl-like form. Image courtesy Isaac Newton Institute.

If the way the partnership arose seems a little prosaic, more marriage bureau than coup de foudre, the results put paid to any doubts that this is a match made in heaven. Davey has produced a body of work which, even unfinished, is both beautiful and conceptually fascinating. Several of the works repeat the same basic form, an undulating circular bowl-like shape. One way up this has a raised centre curving down into a surrounding bowl and then up to form the rim: turn it over and it becomes a circular hilly edge dipping down into a central depression. Berman describes the objects as "self-dual", with equal negative and positive curvature. Rendered in different materials, turned wood and cast iron, this form is repeated several times in the current body of work, always paired. Berman comments that this is an extremely effective visualisation of the concept of duality: once you see one side you can infer the other even if you can't see it. "It's a very simple relationship of inversion – 'in' becomes 'out'."

The shape also has rotational symmetry, but in the large cast iron versions Davey has treated the metal with a salt wash to produce an irregular, highly textured patina. "It's done with salt water – the build up of salt crystals. The lines of water define the form. You let gravity do its stuff, really. There's obviously rust. You let the surface develop over time." Delightfully, these rounded shapes, cast from a farmyard found object – a piglet feeder – have, with the addition of salt water, become a tactile interpretation of one of the central concepts of modern particle physics, at the heart of the current multi-million pound LHC experiment in CERN. Berman explains:

"The symmetry is broken by the texture — at the small scale the texture breaks the larger rotational symmetry. And that's something that's very reflective of physics: in fact it's the origin of the Higgs mechanism."

In fact the found object was chosen because it bore such a strong serendipitous resemblance to the shape of a three-dimensional graph of the potential energy in the Higgs mechanism, looking like a raised hill surrounded by a moat, which David Berman had drawn during early conversations with Grenville Davey. The excitement of the apparent discovery of the Higgs boson at the LHC is that it confirms the existence of the Higgs mechanism, where it is the breaking of symmetry that results in fundamental particles acquiring mass. In other words, at the most fundamental level it is broken symmetry that defines the nature of the Universe we inhabit. (You can read a detailed technical description of the Higgs mechanism in our article Secret Symmetry and the Higgs Boson).

Some of the untitled works in progress on display in the Isaac Newton Institute.

Some of the untitled works in progress on display in the Isaac Newton Institute.

Rotational and reflective symmetry is both present and broken in other ways on other works. Turned wood objects incorporate splits and fissures in the wood, either natural flaws or arising from deliberately working the wood when wet and then letting it dry out. Pairs of identical objects become non-identical as one is vertically split into two, but then the two halves themselves mirror one another to form another pair. In another work, a wigstand – chosen by Davey as "a really well-known figurative shape" – in turned oak is positioned next to a steel cylinder, treated with acid to colour and patinate the surface. Both objects would have perfect rotational symmetry except that that of the cylinder is broken by two eyeholes bored into the metal, facing the eyeless head of the wigstand, which itself is split by a fissure in the wood. Davey describes the positioning as "uncomfortably close", but the emotional dynamic is ambiguous: to me the round-eyed cylinder could evoke protection as much as vulnerability. The cylinder's diameter is such that the head would fit inside it neatly, and while this implied potential enclosure could be threatening it's equally possible to view the cylinder as a protective sleeve, an embrace, a helmet with eyeholes looking out on the world.

Both the head and cylinder pairing and another wooden form — a larger version of the pot-base surmounted by stacked circles, bored on one side with holes like eyes and on the other both eyes and mouth - carry echoes of the small bronze heads by Henry Moore, recently on display at the Royal Society as part of the Intersections: Henry Moore and stringed surfaces exhibition, in partnership with the Science Museum, celebrating the Isaac Newton Institute's 20th anniversary. Though completely distinct, it's part of the strength of Davey's current work that it explores exciting new theoretical territory while recognisably remaining part of a longstanding artistic tradition.

While Moore's surfaces are stringed, they were inspired not by string theory (Moore created the works in the Royal Society exhibition in the 1930s) but by the work of 18th century mathematician Gaspard Monge and his pupil Théodore Olivier. Central to string theory is the idea that strings can form closed loops, and in the sculptures Davey has created there's perhaps a nod to this in the circles that appear everywhere. Circular grooves are etched into the wooden bases of another pair of undulating discs, these forming the centre of two circular spools, a maquette for a larger work which would be created in steel with an outer rim of wood. (The circular frames also carry echoes of bobbins or, in the larger form, reels, on which thread or cables would be wound. This seems peculiarly apposite, a playful pun, but when I ask Davey it appears it is unintentional, a happy accident.)

Multiple inspired by the Isaac Newton Institute's blackboards..

One of the triptychs or multiples inspired by the Isaac Newton Institute's blackboards. Image © Grenville Davey.

More concretely, the repeated circle motif reflects the importance within string theory of the concept of T-duality. String theory predicts that spacetime is not four but ten-dimensional, and T-duality is a consequence of how strings interact with the geometry of the extra dimensions: in the most simple terms, Berman explains, a large circle is equivalent to a small circle. The works inspired by the Newton Institute's blackboards, themselves circular medallions painted under glass, feature on one piece within each triptych a single smaller circle hand-drawn in chalk. Drawing is important for Davey – he talks about drawing as speculating, and it later strikes me that his meaning here might be not just that of philosophical enquiry but also a chancy gamble - and in his period as artist in residence at the INI he was clearly struck by how much the mathematicians and physicists taking part in the Institute's programmes rely on the blackboards to communicate their ideas to one another. "It's a very fast surface — it's made of glass," he points out, with an artist’s technical perspective. The chalked circle — the "idealised Platonic shape" — seems to be a symbolic boundary too, drawn in a single sweep with a chalk pen, both suggesting and enclosing all the potential of the surface for more specific communication. Designed as a multiple work, the plan is that one triptych will be housed in the Newton Institute, another in Woolsthorpe Manor, Newton's birthplace, and others in locations yet to be confirmed. The triptychs are described by Davey as sets of matched pairs, but with one component of a pair missing, breaking and distorting the symmetry of the group. Perhaps the missing component also suggests the hidden dimensions that exist within the strange geometry of space. "The groups of three — they are two pairs, with one missing," says Davey. "The suggestion that one is somewhere else…"

It's obviously very much a real collaboration, in practical as well as theoretical terms. A particularly attractive pair of objects is currently on display in the Financial Services Authority building in Canary Wharf. Made of turned wood, both are inscribed with equations and mathematical symbols, taken from Berman's research, burned into the surface. I assume this was done by Davey but in fact he reveals he gave them to Berman to carry out.

Grenville Davey at work.

Grenville Davey. Image © Josh Wright.

When I ask Grenville Davey, who is very tall and very quiet, how they work together he laughs. "We talk, a lot, talk and talk, and draw things," he says. "David comes to my studio and breaks things." It turns out that this isn't a joke but a literal statement. In the course of Davey making the set of forms cast from the piglet feeder, Berman wondered, he says, "if the best way to demonstrate symmetry breaking might be to break something". "So he comes in and straightaway asks for a sledge hammer," continues Davey, "and at this point I didn't know him very well…" They haven't yet decided whether the now-broken object will form part of the final work: Berman thinks it should, Davey promises to take another look at it. "It can be a way of moving things forward," says Davey. "You don't necessarily have to destroy something but you literally cut it in half," as he has done with other pieces. "Once you start to make objects and see them it becomes like an experimental science," says Berman. "You make the things, put them together and see how it goes." Berman draws parallels with how scientific research is conducted too. "You start out with an idea but you have to go where it leads you, rather than saying at the outset 'This is what it's going to be'."

Both Davey and Berman comment on the fact that collaboration is common among scientists and mathematicians but that it's rarer for artists to work together. Both also, interestingly, see more parallels between the way they work than an outsider might expect. "Physics is very much built on a visual, geometric way of thinking," says Berman. "Many mathematicians are very visual. In some sense Grenville and I are closer than people realise, because I often don't think in terms of equations but in terms of rotating things or moving things around, and I think that came out early on." Davey agrees, giving the example of how in one of their early discussions Berman grabbed an exercise ball to explain the curvature of space-time in general relativity. "David talks about an object in a similar way to how I would talk about it in my head."

The collaboration is ongoing, with several pieces not yet finished, but Davey and Berman hope that they will find a contemporary gallery to stage an exhibition of the work. The partnership deserves a wider audience: benefiting from Berman's ability to distil some of the essentials of immensely complex ideas from mathematics and physics into concepts that resonate with the themes Davey has been exploring, re-examining and reinventing for the past two decades, it is producing some genuinely exciting and interesting art. "Some of the suggestions of forms were already in existence," Davey explains, but working with Berman brought a new perspective and contextualisation; an added dimension, if you will. Though inspired by and referencing concepts from contemporary physics, the work explores very human themes of relationship and identity too, in the space between one object and another and between the work and the observer. Davey's paired but separate objects, close but not touching, interact with the viewer and themselves through space, the wordless eye-holes gazing back as we look at them. To me some of these grained, tactile and feminine objects, closely positioned as if huddling together, are intensely moving, but to another observer perhaps the scarred, split pairings might seem antagonistic, confronting each other as they square up for a fight. These objects exist, as it were, in their own duality, evoking both an intellectual conceptual engagement but also a purely emotional response.

Whatever the viewer will finally see in the finished body of work, Grenville Davey and David Berman seem to have moved to a stage in the process of collaboration where the work created has its own momentum. "I've had to learn to abandon my conceptual bias about what things should go together for the aesthetic of what works," says Berman. "In the end, there's just the evidence of the objects."

About this article

David Berman

David Berman.

Grenville Davey, at the Isaac Newton Institute

Grenville Davey, at the Isaac Newton Institute.

David Berman is Reader in Theoretical Physics at Queen Mary, University of London. He has worked on string theory for the past 15 years, and is currently producing a book for Cambridge University Press on “An introduction to M-theory”. He has also collaborated with various artists on aspects of string theory and given talks at the Royal College of Art, the Institute of Contemporary Art and Tate Modern. He was part of the London Frieze 2009 Cartier award winning piece with artist Jordan Wolfson.

Grenville Davey is a British sculptor, and won the 1992 Turner Prize. He is a visiting professor at the University of the Arts London and programme leader for the MA Fine Art at the University of East London. His work was recently included in the Royal Academy's retrospective of British Sculpture and he has just completed a commission for the Olympic Park in London.

You can view videos of David and Grenville talking about their collaboration on the Isaac Newton Institute website.

Julia Hawkins is Deputy Director of the Millennium Mathematics Project at the University of Cambridge. She also writes about a range of topics including her long-standing fascination with representations of science in literature and art. She interviewed David Berman and Grenville Davey in Cambridge in July 2012.

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